Back in the 1990s, giddy with the promise of this new thing called "cyberspace," video arcades around the country started birthing games with a newfangled VR (virtual reality) headset. The new games enabled players to stand in a little box that resembled a cherry picker (without crane attached) and shoot at pterodactyls and interact with blocky "Money For Nothing" characters.
Fast-forward 15 years and Sony is giving the personal 3D device a second run with its HMZ-T1 headset, just minus the VR. The HMZ-T1 was first shown off at CES 2011, where it was given the dubious nickname of Headman--you know, like Walkman. But as the Walkman had little to do with feet, I think the T1 would be more aptly named the Couchman.
Design and features
The HMZ-T1 "3D personal cinema" consists of two small OLED screens inside a big headset with built-in stereo headphones. The headset is made of two-tone plastic that would perfectly match the armor of a Storm Trooper. It's a little subtler in design than the prototype I saw at CES 2011, with just a single blue power light.
The headset weighs almost a pound at 14.8 oz, which Sony describes as "surprisingly lightweight." If you're expecting a deep-sea diving helmet, then, yes, it is surprising. The headset comes with adjustable rubber straps and a number of different cushions for people who do or don't wear spectacles, though it was still difficult to achieve a comfortable fit.
The screen boasts a resolution of 720p for both 2D and 3D, and comes with a slider that enables you to adjust the separation between the screens to account for different eye spacing. Unfortunately, the adjustment is quite coarse; I would have appreciated individual sliders for each eye.
Sony says the display is equivalent to a 150-inch screen viewed at a distance of 12 feet. I don't know what kind of palatial rooms Sony is used to lounging in, but based on our recent 4K article, a distance of 8 feet from a screen is more likely. This means that in a normal lounge room it's the equivalent of a 100-inch screen. That's still pretty big.
While there were murmurs of a battery-powered option, the headset is unfortunately tethered to a small breakout box--hence Couchman. The box has a proprietary HMD (head-mounted display) output that connects to the headset via a substantial 11.6-foot (3.5m) cord. I found that the cable was long enough for most living room setups and didn't snag when I put the headset on. The box incorporates two HDMI ports--one in and one out--and when the headset is turned off, the box acts as a video pass-through for a connected device. For added flexibility I would have liked to see the pass-through work when the device was on as well.
All of the controls are mounted on the underside of the helmet and include a four-way rocker, a Menu/OK button, power, and volume buttons. Pressing the Menu button also enables you to change picture and sound modes and adjust settings such as brightness and contrast.
The T1 could be seen as a companion to the other specialist 3D screen the company released this year, the Sony PlayStation 3D display, but having used both products for an extended period, I can say the T1 is undoubtedly better.
I found attaching the headset to be quite a challenge and with my larger-than-normal bonce, the straps were too small to give a comfortable fit. If you're prodigiously cranial, ala Megamind, then you can forget about buying this device.
Once attached, the headset presents you with a setup menu for adjusting the screens for eye spacing. Unfortunately it's not possible to get all of the text on the screen sharp at the same time; preserving sharpness in the center of the screen rendered the edges blurry. Once you get past all the warnings--take regular breaks, should not be used by children 15 and under--you can get cracking.
Using the T1, 3D proved to be particularly engrossing, and 3D games were actually fun to play for the first time. On 3D TVs the depth effects seem too eye-popping, and hence brain-popping, for most games, but the HMZ-T1 is much more subtle and engrossing. I tested a number of PlayStation 3 games on the headset and found that even the notorious Wipeout was free of crosstalk.
Display-introduced crosstalk is nonexistent with this device since it actually sends different images to each eye, instead of relying on the active shutters or passive polarization in 3D glasses to separate intermingled images on a TV screen. Since crosstalk is one of the most annoying 3D artifacts and visible to some extent on every 3D TV I've seen, it was refreshing to experience a stereoscopic presentation where it simply wasn't a factor.
Movies were just as enjoyable, and I quickly lost track of time when watching "Avatar" in 3D. I would say that if given a choice of watching passive 3D or using the goggles, I would choose the Sonys if picture quality were the only factor. But there is one major caveat: the heavy headset becomes uncomfortable after a while. Watching a 3-hour movie can become tiring, and the system even warns you at that mark to take a rest.
Watching in 2D was also fun, but not quite as enveloping. Black levels were fantastic with plenty of detail, but you might want to sit in the dark to take full advantage, as the top of the headset is open. Colors, even in the default Standard mode, were truthful and thanks to the deep blacks had plenty of pop. The 1080p/24p support was excellent with smooth pans and onscreen movement.
Blurring on the edge is visible with moving video but not distracting most of the time. Games with intricate onscreen displays that include figures on the far edges, on the other hand, definitely suffer. And while I found I could use the headset as a personal PC screen, it's not worthwhile because of the blurring.
Apart from the blur problem there were some other issues that spoiled my enjoyment. The pixel structure is quite visible on a light-colored screen, and there was a significant lack of detail when compared with what you'd see on a 1080p TV.
For action movies, the built-in headphones sound decent with plenty of low-end weight and midrange attack. But this can also translate to incomprehensible dialogue from mumbly, deep-voiced actors like Harrison Ford. If I hadn't seen "The Empire Strikes Back" so many times, I wouldn't have known that it wasn't a cave they'd hidden the Millennium Falcon in.
Playing music? Nosiree. If you're masochistic enough to wear a video headset to listen to tunes, you'll be greeted with flat, muddy replay. The speakers aren't able to generate enough high frequencies to make music enjoyable.
Who is this headset aimed at? I'd say if you're looking at quick bursts of gaming or a bit of 3D TV, then the HMZ-T1 will serve admirably. Its lack of portability is an issue, and aside from watching adult movies, there's really nothing short of bloody-mindedness that would make users choose this over a cheaper 3D TV in the long term. Will it start a trend? Probably not, but for what it's worth, this is definitely the best video headset I've ever used. I look forward to seeing (and hearing) where this technology can go next.